PROKOFIEV Violin Concerto No 1 (van Keulen)
Having recorded Prokofiev’s complete works for violin and piano with Ronald Brautigam (Challenge Classics, 5/13), Isabelle van Keulen might have been expected to pair the violin concertos. Instead she takes a bravely unconventional approach to programming with this latest release. Attempting to tie things together, her own booklet note makes a virtue of Walton’s indebtedness to Prokofiev and draws in The Lark too: ‘In the end, all three works … return to their opening; all of them are works without any theatrics, without pretensions; they dissolve as it were into nothingness, they complete the circle.’ Never mind that Prokofiev without theatrics sounds somewhat implausible: perhaps we shouldn’t take her too literally.
The First Violin Concerto, the piece van Keulen learnt for her Concertgebouw debut when still in her teens, receives a fresh and imaginative performance, the soloist’s slender, slightly metallic timbre and occasionally self-conscious phrasing offsetting any tendency to glib romanticism. The Scherzo is characterful, initially at the expense of absolute security, the outer movements prone to take stock rather than flowing freely as some do, looking rather for the music between the notes. It helps that Andrew Manze elicits such pristine textures from his own Hanover band despite the recording venue’s rather generous acoustic.
The Walton, though firmly projected with few if any moments of strain, is likelier to disappoint. Tempos are moderate, eschewing either the withdrawal into slow motion rapture exemplified by Yuri Bashmet with André Previn (RCA, 3/99) or the zippier drive of James Ehnes and Edward Gardner (Chandos, 6/18). Nor is there much in the way of productive interplay between soloist and orchestra. Michael Kennedy described Walton’s epilogue as ‘sensuous yet full of uncertainty’. While the Challenge Classics team raise their game hereabouts, the work’s curious mix of despondency and dash tends to elude the players.
Things look up interpretatively speaking with The Lark Ascending, the only one of the three scores to have been recorded without a live audience but with nothing studied or anonymous about it. The silvery protagonist is less somnolent than many rivals, the orchestral contribution wholly sympathetic if at times overbearingly loud – did something go awry in the control room? What was always going to be a mixed bag turns out to be a mixed blessing.